Podcast Transcript: 281 – Oakland’s Coordinated Coronavirus Response
This is the full transcript for Talking Headways Episode 281.
We’re joined by Warren Logan, Policy Director of Mobility and Inter Agency Relations for the City of Oakland. Warren talks with us about Oakland’s Coronavirus response including how they came up with initiatives to respond to the crisis and some of the specific implementations such as the Slow Streets Initiative. We dive deep into public engagement and how to think about coordination between different departments in new ways.
JW: Warren Logan, welcome to the Talking Headways podcast.
WL: Thanks so much, Jeffrey, for having me.
JW: Awesome. So you were here a year ago, but it was on a panel, and so I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit about yourself.
WL (1m 24s): Sure. Hey everybody. I’m Warren Logan and I am the Oakland mayor’s Policy Director of Mobility and Interagency Relations. Before that I worked at the San Francisco County Transportation Authority as the city’s lead on emerging mobility policy.
JW (1m 39s): So how’d you initially get into transportation?
WL (1m 42s): You know it’s funny, like a lot of kids I played with Thomas the Tank Engine toys, but I can’t say that that was probably the main reason I became a transportation planner. In part I wanted to be an architect, and then I realized that I find the value of people moving through space more interesting. And that’s when I landed on transportation planning.
JW (2m 1s): And what got you thinking about architecture in the first place?
WL (2m 4s): Oh gosh. Uh, (Laughs), you know, that’s a great question. To be honest, my parents were some of those people who like to redo our house over and over again. And I was constantly sort of living in a sea of chaos and that just really got me interested in how people can reuse and modify space. You know, whether, in our case, our home that was always a mess, or a city more broadly.
JW (2m 28s): Do you have an aversion to HGTV shows now?
WL (2m 31s): Oh gosh, yes. It’s so painful to watch them because it’s like, you know that there’s so much time in between, you know, “This is our lovely home and we’re going to try and make it better.” And then magically three minutes later after the commercial break, you have something perfect, and the world just doesn’t work that way. You know, city planning, transportation planning or HGTV alone, none of those are really how that works.
JW (2m 54s): It’s amazing how they consolidate like six to eight months of work into, you know, an hour episode.
WL (3m 1s): Well, you know what though, Jeff, I think, and we’ll probably talk about this a bit on this episode, when you have a really gung ho team working on a major project tirelessly, you can get a lot of stuff done very quickly, faster in fact then I think people typically can imagine.
JW (3m 18s): That’s true. So you’ve made the work move from San Francisco to Oakland. What’s the biggest difference that you’ve seen between those two?
WL (3m 24s): San Francisco has a much larger budget than Oakland and frankly, both the SFCTA, the SFMTA and the San Francisco government writ large just has way more bodies, way more manpower. What’s really exciting though about the city of Oakland is that despite the fact that our budget is lower, we have fewer staff. We are so gung ho, you know, when I meet people in every one of our departments, they tell these stories about how they grew up in Oakland, have, you know, their family’s from Oakland and that they’re really doing this from their heart. They’re saying, you know, “I grew up here and I just want to make my community better.” And it’s just so exciting to be able to work with people like that, to know that their heart is just so in the right place and to really connect on that deeper level.
JW (4m 9s): That’s awesome. What do you think the percentages of folks that are from Oakland in the staff there?
WL (4m 12s): Oh gosh. I was in one of our training modules, you know, when you first get hired, and they did a survey of a hundred people in the room and they asked, “Folks, please raise your hand if you live in Oakland.” And nearly everyone raised their hand. Then they asked, “Okay, how many of you have been in Oakland for 10 years? For 20 years?” And the hands were still raised. So I can’t speak for the entire group of maybe 5,000 people who work for our city, but at least in my small sample, it seemed like a fair number were, you know, homegrown here in Oakland.
JW (4m 43s): I do find that Oaklanders are very passionate about where they live and I appreciate that. I worked there for about eight years at 12th & Broadway, and I was actually looking forward to going over to see you today. Unfortunately our current circumstances don’t allow it, but I appreciate that passion. It’s, it’s really great.
JW: So initially, like I said, we had a conversation scheduled for today. Unfortunately the coronavirus had other ideas, but a few interesting things have changed since we set this up that maybe can help us with our previous discussion specifically around Oakland transportation policies during the shelter in place home orders. I’m curious what’s happened in Oakland since the coronavirus has come to our shores.
WL (5m 21s): What’s happened is that the majority of our residents are sheltering in place. (Laughs) That is the greatest difference I would say. But you know what though, what’s also happened is that like many other city governments or even government agencies, we have stood up a sort of SWAT team of sorts for our emergency response. And I just want to take a second to sort of explain what we call our EOC, how that works, because I think that that speaks volumes to how we are able to deliver so quickly on the initiatives that were coming up with. So during any emergency our city stands up, you know, our EOC. And what we do is we identify a series of initiatives that are sort of necessary to respond to the crisis. So they’re just driven by what the problem at hand is. We pull folks, leaders across all of our different departments and we sort of stack them in a totally different, you know, matrix and org chart if you will. And it’s really exciting because if you were to take, and you and I’ve talked about this a bit, Jeff, and this is probably what we were trying to talk about before, when you take the sort of government silos that we’re used to you and sort of turn them on their side and just identify what is the goal we’re trying to accomplish today, tomorrow, in the next hour, what are we trying to do? That’s how you look at our EOC structure. So I’m situated in our community resilience branch within an operations group. And what we do is we identify how we can support our community or our business teams and our community support. So I’m lead on our residents support, so my whole job is to make sure that people who live here feel like they are supported during this crisis. The first initiative was to build out testing sites around the city to help people gain access to needed testing for the COVID-19 crisis. The second initiative, which we’re going to talk about today, is the Oakland Slow Streets Initiative. And it’s just really exciting to see how we can sort of stack a vertical of people from police, fire, public works, the mayor’s office and the city administrator’s office to deliver really responsive initiatives day in and day out.
JW: How have the staff at the city responded to this change?
WL: I think really well, in part because a big portion of the city government is still very much functioning as it was before. You know, we’re still taking permit applications and right-of-way applications just like before, and in fact in some cases I think we’re finding that we’re able to focus on our work really well, which is awesome. In response to people managing their lives in the EOC, I would say that we are all as a team trying to do our best to make sure that we’re holding each other in our collaboration and making sure that folks are getting the rest that they need and the sleep that they need and connecting with their families. Each of our conference calls or video calls start with, “How are you doing? How are you feeling? Are you supported?” Because we recognize that many of us are out of our element. You know, as an example, I’m not a medical practitioner, I don’t have an MD, and so standing up testing sites for example, has been really challenging but still really rewarding. So just to answer your question, we’re being extremely thoughtful with each other day in and day out to make sure that we’re just supporting each other, both in the tasks that we need to get set up and also, frankly, emotionally. This is a really difficult time for people and as the mayor has said, people are stressed, so we want to make sure that we’re just being really great team players along the way.
JW: Yeah. I think more folks need to be, need to be a little more kind to themselves.
JW: And kind of let themselves maybe have a day where they’re, you know, having a rough day and just kinda let it go and chill out a bit and not worry so much about getting everything done that you feel like needs to be done. Although it’s good to have goals and get things going.
JW: So I want to back up a bit and then talk about this. You know, you’ve actualized a few things and you talked about testing sites, you talked about the safe streets initiative. But you’ve been involved in a number of government entities. So I’m curious what government does well from your perspective.
WL (9m 23s): I think government does a lot of things well. First I’ll say that I think our major task is to make sure that someone has our residents’ back. And it’s interesting too, to think about the timing of this crisis in relationship to the sort of national focus on who’s our next president, right? You know, we just a few months ago we were talking about frankly the role of the government writ large in helping people, making sure that they feel that they have some type of insurance whether I mean that literally or figuratively. And I think that that’s what we do well. We are here to have your back. We are here to think about the worst case scenarios, to think about how to plan for the future from a collective stance. Even if each one of us naturally wants to think about our own, for better for worse, our own selfish needs. And I mean that in a positive and a negative way. And what that means is hopefully taking a very steady calculated approach to any problem-solving initiative, you know, and so in my case, that looks like transportation planning where we say, you know, if the problem we’re trying to resolve is that people are not able to walk bicycle, scooter, or take transit safely, equitably across the city, what is an approach that we can take that is measured and is calculated based on data to improve people’s lives, especially in an economy in a world that primarily focuses on people with greater access to money and to resources. Who’s left to care about the people who don’t have access to resources? How do we deliver for them? I think we do that really well.
JW (11m 2s): And that’s really interesting because I think that when you talk about access to money and resources here in the Bay Area, you often think about Silicon Valley and the madness of getting a bunch of money together to throw at a problem. And you’re talking about doing stuff deliberately and, you know, with data and slowly, whereas you know, we talk a lot about “innovation” and that idea of going fast and the bad idea of going fast and breaking things, in my opinion.
WL: Well it’s funny, Jeff, that you’ve said that because what brought you and I together originally was our conversation about shared mobility. And now being on this side of it, when I was in San Francisco, I was sort of the agitator inside, right? To sort of say, “Hey, I think that there’s a place for shared mobility.” And I still believe that’s true. And it’s interesting now being, you know, in the mayor’s office, I still believe that and it is our job to make sure that while there are groups of people who feel that they can move quickly and perhaps break things, (Laughs) that there’s a, you know, but that there’s a sandbox for them to do that and that there are clear walls and boundaries to make sure that people don’t get hurt while we’re playing, so to speak.
JW: I love that. I love that analogy. Throwing kids in the sandbox and letting them go go wild.
WL: Well, it’s almost like knee pads, right? Like I don’t want to be the helicopter parents saying you can’t have fun, but at the same time I want to make sure that we’re learning our lessons and that we are, you know, staying in the safe yard at the same time.
JW: Well, that gets to another question for me. For you, what is innovation? I mean, what does it mean from your end? I know we talked about the sandbox, but what is innovation itself?
WL: Sure. It’s interesting in fact, because this is the first time that I’ve been invited into our emergency operations system for Oakland, and in part because I’ve only been there for nine months and there’s only so many emergencies. (Laughs) That said, one of the things, and this is to answer your question about what is innovation, typically people think that innovation happens outside of the government, that government responds to innovation. What’s interesting about that is that I don’t believe that that has to be the case. It is often the case, which is its own challenge, but almost every day when people who are in our emergency operations center, and just to give you a picture here, even though we’re working remotely, at times, we do have to report in, and I want you to imagine, you know, the stadium seating with the big screens, multiple screens sort of showing the news, the daily reports, all the data. You know, that’s what I mean when I’m talking about our emergency center. So it really does look like how you would imagine it. Just to give everyone a picture, so to speak, of what I’m talking about. When each of us comes into work at that center, what’s so exciting is that you repeatedly hear people saying, “ know that there’s a crisis. This is so devastating. This is going to be such a big challenge.” And they’ll say almost in the same breath how exciting it is to come to work each day in that environment, in that emergency operations environment where you get to meet leaders, meet people you naturally just would never otherwise have connected with, and grow and learn and understand all the amazing skill sets that we have in our different departments. And so what innovation looks like for the government, especially in this moment, is to see that we are able to work under different circumstances. We can in fact also move quickly, and I think keep tight to our shared principles and goals that the city has held true, you know, for the past 100 years or even the last six years under Mayor Schaaf’s leadership. So I think that’s also what innovation can look like too.
JW: Do you think it helps to work towards that single goal of helping to keep people safe?
WL: Absolutely, and that’s really true of any organization, right? How successful can anyone be if they don’t know what success looks like, if they haven’t defined what the goal is?
JW: I mean, that makes a lot of sense. I just think about cities as they operate now and everybody has so many different goals and so many different directions that they’re pulling. It seems like in this specific moment, pulling towards one goal, it feels very, a little bit of sports-like, right? You have a championship at the end of the season and you’re looking forward to that specific thing and so everybody’s pulling together. Whereas usually everybody in the city, it feels like anyways, has different championships, right? They’re trying to do different things for different people, which is, you know, super laudable. It doesn’t happen often where we have a single goal because everybody is individuals, right? I’m just curious how that pulls together and how people are responding to that because it is a single goal.
WL (15m 24s): I think that’s right. It’s, having a shared goal for anything is critical and what’s interesting about this moment of course is that it has helped us align on a singular challenge, right? COVID-19 is the challenge that we are all looking at. What’s interesting though, to just give your listeners a brief history of planning in California, is that every city is responsible for making what’s called a General Plan, but charter cities are not required to update their General Plans as frequently. In fact, there’s, there’s no timeline on on the frequency of which they have to update those plans, but the irony of course is that the intention around creating a General Plan and then by extension area plans or specific plans which are just by their name more focused on a specific geography other than the entire city, is that it provides everyone, all of the key stakeholders, whether, you know, you live there, you work there, you frequent that space, an opportunity to reevaluate, “What are the challenges we’re looking to address? What are our shared principles? What are our shared goals? Do we align? Do we agree on what we’re all looking at,” right? And then, “What are the types of changes we expect to see over a horizon,” right, whether that’s 5 years, 10 years, 20 or 30. And I think that what’s been missing both in Oakland and by extension in lots of other cities is the lack of community planning that helps bring people back to the table to say, “What is the shared vision that we’re trying to accomplish and how are we going to go from a to B to C all the way to Z,” for example.
JW (16m 59s): What’s community planning versus, say, community participation or just having community meetings that are at 5:00 PM in the evenings that many folks can’t go to.
WL (17m 9s): I have, I have so many different responses to that. So first I’ll, I’ll cover the difference, which is that I think when you have sort of a town hall meeting, and I don’t know if you’ve seen this amazing show with Amy Poehler, it’s called Parks and Rec. Have you seen that show?
JW (17m 22s): I’ve seen a couple episodes and I know that people really love it and hold it up as something that they appreciate. But I unfortunately have been a bad planner I guess, and I haven’t watched the whole thing, but I should.
WL (17m 32s): Don’t worry. I can, I can give you a brief backstory and the only episode you really need to watch is probably the first and second episode. I will say for your listeners who haven’t seen that show that it’s very triggering if you’re a city planner. Because in a scene, Leslie Knope has decided that she’s going to have a town hall neighborhood meeting to talk about a park, you know, because she’s the parks director, to talk about filling a hole in a park. And that’s the sort of the whole point of the first season. The town hall meeting goes terribly because you know, you bring all these people together, sort of focus ostensibly around a singular problem, and what ends up happening is that immediately Leslie Knope, Amy Poehler’s character, loses everyone’s focus and they all start just sharing all of their sort of wonky ideas. And that is not unlike a lot of city meetings. (Laughs) And I think the reason I share this as an example is because the difference between those community meetings, those town halls that are sort of in response to a specific issue, it doesn’t offer people an opportunity to just voice what their hopes and dreams are for the community. It’s not a blue sky initiative. It’s not just to say, “What do you think?” And I think that’s frankly one of the bigger challenges that city planners, government officials, even community members frankly struggle with, is that there’s never really a good opportunity to just sort of take a step back and say, “What is the vision? What is the goal?” And without doing that in a way that is accessible to people, we’re always going to struggle reaching A) our goals and B) reaching the people that need to be reached out to. Which brings me to sort of the second thing you said, which is that traditional city planning, traditional community outreach, relies on a pretty awful format, which is you post a flyer, and you tell people to show up to a place that is probably city hall at a time that they probably want to be home feeding themselves and their kids or heaven forbid they’re probably still at work, and that’s not fair. And I think you and I have talked about this a lot, and I shared my pretty specific opinion about community engagement with frankly anyone who will listen to me, (Laughs) but I just wanted to share sort of to that end, one of the other lessons learned that that we’ll probably talk a little bit more about in this episode that we have learned during COVID-19 which is that because people cannot gather in one place, it immediately requires every single person in our government who wants to reach out to the community members, we are now required to figure out how we can reach them in a way that does not require them to show up to a single place, which frankly we should have done a long time ago. I don’t think I’m the first person to say that and I certainly won’t be the last, and it’s been really cool because our engagement director in the mayor’s office, you know, we keep giving her major kudos because she is just making amazing strides in finding ways to have what we’re calling weekly virtual town halls with the mayor. The mayor picks a few topics that she’s heard about during the week. We get community leaders, we have policy directors, and in fact tonight, today’s Thursday for your listeners, we’re going to have a town hall meeting tonight, and I’m going to talk about Slow Streets. And we have folks provide questions in advance, and we just try and give people the best insight into our initiatives that we can just from the safety and comfort of their couch, from their cell phones, from their computers, from the news, right, from YouTube, from Facebook. We’re reaching thousands of people all at the same time in a way that we would never have reached if we had required these people to show up to city hall for a meeting and that’s really exciting.
JW (21m 15s): People who want to be heard in this kind of new situation that we’re in, have they felt like they’re being heard in terms of, you know, being able to reach out and get their thoughts and maybe fears and ideas across to folks like the mayor or you know, heads of certain departments or folks that might be able to answer their questions?
WL (21m 33s): I think it’s difficult to answer that question. My hope is that people feel that they’ve been heard. I’m confident that they’re going to be people who feel like they are not being heard, and it is our responsibility of course to try and listen to them in whichever way that they are reaching out to us. I will say what has been interesting is that the way that people contact the mayor’s office typically comes in two fashions. The first is that they will email [email protected]* which goes to our community liaison who shares out and sort of triages all of the different requests that we get to the different policy directors, and we provide responses. The other way that people share their feedback with the mayor’s office is either by calling our office or just showing up and demanding to be spoken to at that moment. What’s interesting though is that that type of process, that feedback loop, it favors people who have the time to engage in that way who are able to call during the day, right, to reach a live person. What’s interesting though is that even though for folks who have, maybe your listeners have called me, my desk phone is forwarded to my cell phone, so please be thoughtful about that, but I have noticed that while normally I would receive a number of calls every day with typically the same people asking the same questions and I would thoughtfully answer them, I’ve also noticed though that people are reaching out via Twitter. People are emailing me, people are, you know, going on Facebook, people are going on all of our different social media threads at all times of the day. And we’re having both live conversations, right, where I’m responding to a tweet in the moment and then people are sort of responding later on in the day. And I know that I am reaching people that I never would have reached before. I just recently requested some insights onto my Twitter account, just as an example. Not that Twitter is the barometer of perfect community engagement, but it is a form of it. I just discovered Twitter Analytics and I can track, you know, how many people, the impressions, the hashtags, the retweets, the, you know, you name it. And if you look from January, February, March, and now April, you know, there’s this sort of like low line from January through February of engagement and starting with March, it just spikes and it’s like 500% engagement. I’ve reached 38,000 people. Like, I’ve never been able to say that I’ve reached 38,000 people before with any kind of message, you know, I wish, right? And to be able to see that means that on some level there needs to be a change in the way that we are reaching people. And whether that’s Twitter or some other media, fine. But there’s definitely a lesson learned here for anybody who’s looking to engage with the government, there needs to be new forms of engagement.
JW: So let’s talk about the safe streets initiative a bit. How did that get started and what was the process for moving forward with that? I guess first off, you could tell us what it is and what you all are doing. Then maybe tell us a little bit about how it came to be.
WL: Sure. Maybe I’ll start with the problem that we were trying to solve. You know me, I’m always trying to ask people, “What is the problem that you’re solving here?” So I’ll share first that Oakland is so blessed to have a number of parks around the city, and one of them being the largest, Lake Merritt, right, kind of in the next to downtown and we’ve noticed a lot of people have reached out to us in various forms, just as I said, and said, “Hey, the parks are overcrowded. I don’t feel safe walking here and I don’t feel safe driving here, but I still need outdoor recreation.” So that’s one challenge that we’re trying to address. The second is that frankly, people are still making essential trips. Just because there’s a shelter in place mandate does not mean that people are not driving, walking, bicycling, you name it, to the grocery stores, to get their medication or what have you. And there are people who are still working. There are people who still are working in essential jobs. And perhaps underneath all of that, Oakland’s demographics haven’t changed overnight. Nothing about COVID changed, well actually not for the better anyway, nothing about COVID changed for the better that people have a lower access to cars in our low income neighborhoods. So just the same as, as we’ve seen, AC Transit is our bus provider here, as we’ve seen bus service going down because their workers are also getting sick or are also sheltering in place. And as we’ve seen, BART is reducing its service. It means that all of those people who are traveling, whether for exercise or for essential trips need a way to do so safely across our city. And so, you know, the folks in our Parks Department and our Public Works Department and our Department of Transportation sort of put their heads together and said, “Well how do we address all of these different challenges knowing that we need to do so extremely quickly?” Right, we’re in a pandemic, it’s a crisis and we have limited bandwidth, right, we have fewer people who can implement anything because again, we’re addressing multiple challenges all at once. And what is a way in which we can make sure that we distribute whatever this new widget is, this resource, this policy, that it is distributed equitably throughout the city? And so very fortunately our DoT said, “Well you know, we’ve got this bike plan that we’ve just adopted last year, where thousands of people were engaged and are still engaged in that process. And we asked people at that time during the bike plan, you know, it’s called Let’s Bike Oakland, “What are streets that you residents and workers and you know, neighborhoods, community groups, which streets do you feel you would like to see are safe for people to walk and bicycle around your neighborhood? And our bicycle network not only includes, you know, the buffered bikeway, the protected bikeways, our vision network. We also have neighborhood bikeways that are distributed sort of throughout the entire city. Those are the 74 miles that we just sort of said overnight that we were going to dedicate to this Oakland Slow Streets network. From there we decided, okay, we’re going to start with this network that has been vetted by thousands of people, was adopted by our council unanimously right? To say, okay, let’s work with something already. Let’s not recreate the wheel. And from there we said, “Okay, how do we make these streets even safer?” And that’s the Oakland Slow Streets Initiative where we’re taking the 74 miles sort of judiciously, each week we’re rolling out about 5 to 10 miles each week with soft closures where we put barricades at critical intersections to remind people that if you’re not local traffic, you can’t use these streets. That’s fundamentally what Oakland Slow Streets is about.
JW (28m 12s): I’m curious how the process for engagement came about during the previous process, not necessarily during this COVID-19 situation where it was rolled out in a quicker fashion.
WL (28m 22s): Sure. If you’re asking about the engagement process for the bike plan, it was kind of cool because it’s award-winning. It’s frankly a model in my opinion and in frankly a lot of other people’s opinion, about how to do community engagement well. We had an online system where people could draw lines on a map. We had that same system allow people to comment on the ideas that both staff and other residents were providing. We also put in a lot of “person hours.” In fact, our staff went out to nearly every single community group and ask them, not to come to us, but we went to them, you know, during Dia de Los Muertos, we set up a stand where people could just show up and provide their feedback frankly about anything they wanted around transportation. And so we have for anyone listening, you are welcome to Google Let’s Bike Oakland, Oakland Bike Plan, and you will see an entire chapter on how our engagement went. And then we’re just so proud of that because we again fundamentally met people where they were both figuratively and physically. We went to them and asked them what they wanted, and I think that that’s critical for any type of engagement. Moving forward, I think that we have a lot of apologies to make about how quickly we rolled out this program. I know that a lot of people, including our major advocates, felt like they were kept in the dark. I do want to say though that there are a couple of things here. The first of which is that the streets that we chose were not sort of drawn magically from a hat. They are adopted streets that frankly we just reminded people were our safe network. That’s the funny thing. The second though is that because of the timing, because of the pandemic, we unfortunately didn’t have the luxury of doing a year long study on how to roll this out best. We are very much building the plane as we fly it. And so we’re trying to, you know, take a page out of the book of our innovators of sorts and you know, move fast and apologize along the way. I hope that we’re not breaking things, but I also just recognize that while normally we have the privilege of taking our time and taking a measured approach, not that this wasn’t measured certainly, we also just need to move quickly. We cannot, and I’ve said this a number of times in a series of interviews, I’m not here to debate whether or not streets should be safe. And very fortunately we are building on a plan that has already gone through that engagement process where people, you know, so to speak, negotiated, which streets they felt were the best ones to have as their neighborhood bike and pedestrian routes.
JW: How have people responded so far?
WL: Candidly, I think people have responded really well. On one hand we’ve got groups who are saying, “Wow, we should’ve done this a long time ago.” Some of our advocates have gone up to folks just this last weekend with their smart phones and videotaped them and ask them, you know, “What do you think about this?” There is this mom that said, “Wow, you know, I usually drive my kids to a parking lot for them to be able to scoot in, bike in and now they can just do it right outside our house. Why didn’t we have this before?” There are people who are asking frankly and understandably why didn’t we have this before. And that’s a good problem to have. I want people to be thinking about that. On the other hand, there are people who understandably distrust the government, and we really do need to earn their trust. I know firsthand why people feel like they don’t trust the government. And I say this with some certainty that one of our main initiatives, no matter what we’re doing, is to build trust in government. And when we don’t keep people in the loop about our decisions, we break that trust. And so for that, I’m sorry. That said, I hope that while we rolled this initiative out very, very quickly, nearly overnight, frankly, I hope that people trust that we at least have their best interest at heart, that we really are trying to respond as quickly as possible with the limited resources and bandwidth that we’re all working with during this pandemic.
JW: I love hearing this explanation because you see in the national media right now, especially the transportation and urban planning media, about the cities that are not doing this right. So de Blasio in New York City, Toronto, Ted Wheeler in Portland, people are clamoring on the blogs and, you know, obviously pro-open streets folks, to open streets, and you’ve seen some pushback from them. But then you see Oakland, and everybody has a positive feedback for it. Like “Why can’t we do it like them?” I know this is coming from a spot of someone who watches the space very closely, but were are you all worried about some of the things that some of those mayors we’re talking about in terms of “induced demand” for people gathering in spaces and opening up streets and then having just too many people there during a time when we should be, I call it physical distancing, I really don’t like that social distancing term cause we should be socially closer. I hope the question’s coming across, but you know what I mean? Like is that something you all considered, was the, the worry about people, you know, coming together when they really should be staying apart?
WL (33m 26s): Absolutely. And I can answer that in a couple of ways. First, let’s go back to your original statement, which is that we are getting push back. There are plenty of people who have called and tweeted and texted me and emailed me and said, “Why are you doing this? Like, why? Why now? Why this?” And we have to build that trust with them and to help them understand why it is that it’s so critical that people feel safe to make their essential trips. I won’t share with you some of the more paranoid responses, but frankly it’s just, I can at least speak more broadly that some of the responses that we’ve received in the negative camp break my heart because it’s not about whether or not they feel that they shouldn’t have safe streets, but that they don’t trust why we would do this now or that this isn’t some potential way to somehow hurt them. And that’s what’s coming through with a lot of the criticism is that they just don’t trust that we really have their best interests, and understandably looking at the history of city government, I don’t blame them. There’s a long history of people saying, “I have great intentions for you.” And at the end of it, the people who get hurt the most are black and brown people in these communities. So I definitely understand. Moving towards your second question though about you know, this pushback from other cities and what’s the best way to open up streets with still keeping people physically distant from one another. And again, Jeff, I totally agree with you that I don’t like saying socially distant. People need to be socially present and physically distant. That said, the reason that we picked the network that we did is because it’s all around the city. And the sooner we roll this out, the faster we can disperse people. That also assumes though, and this is not necessarily in contrast to other cities, but it assumes that we don’t have crowding now and we do. Just to remind folks, the reason that we started this initiative was because people were calling us and saying that our parks were terribly overcrowded and another group of people were saying, “Hey, I can’t get to my essential needs safely.” So this is a meeting of resolving an existing crowding problem.
JW (35m 33s): How does this process and what you’ve learned from the EOC and all that stuff change what you do in the future?
WL (35m 39s): First, humility is paramount. The number of people that I have found who are way smarter than me is just innumerable. (Laughs) I think I’m smart, but there’ve just been so many key players, key voices, that you just wouldn’t expect to come forward that have so many fantastic thoughtful ideas, and that’s just been so cool. That has been one of the biggest lessons learned, is that Oakland is filled with so many passionate leaders that we have to consistently lean on and bring into the fold. You and I have had a number of conversations about how I feel about how, you know, if I could wave a magic wand, I would restructure our government agencies to be, you know, more project-oriented, more team-oriented across these different silos. I think that’s critical.
JW (36m 23s): Well, let’s talk about that a little bit more. Team-oriented, project oriented. What does that mean in your opinion when you know, working on specific projects? I think what we’ve talked about in the past is that issue where we’re not necessarily working on a specific project maybe. And that might be part of the problem.
WL (36m 38s): Sure. I think that typically, and I’ll just speak for transportation planning as an example, the way that we would install a bike lane, right, you might identify a few community stakeholders or maybe even not. That’s the first problem. You know you have a series of traffic engineers and designers, they huddle up and say, “Okay, here’s the plan, let’s go ask people what they think about it.” And even internally what that looks like if you sort of shopped it around for one department to another and they have to respond to that. And it might put them in fact sort of in an adversarial position where you’re asking them for red lines for feedback. And so they have to say, well, why “no” on this issue. Whereas on this hand, I think what would be really helpful is if you built the team who’s creating the solution from the ground up from an interdepartmental stance. So at the emergency operations center, part of the resiliency group includes police and fire. So they’re at the table to begin with, and they’re able to say, “Oh well, you know, pick streets that are narrow but not so narrow that we can’t get our firetruck through. You know, make sure that people are able to make these turns.” They are in the design process themselves, so they’re not responding, they’re actually adding to the conversation. That’s what a team looks like, is assuming that people have a voice from the beginning in the project instead of having them just sort of respond to an initiative. And then frankly just respecting what their opinion is and understanding that they are at least aligned on the goal, but perhaps they have a different way of coming to the same, you know, end state.
JW (38m 11s): Another thing that I’ve found interesting from what you’ve told me before is the idea of a panel of community members that’s actually paid to be there rather than, you know, just asked to show up because it’s part of your civic duty.
WL (38m 25s): Right, right. And that’s something that I think Oakland does very well. One of the things that most all government agencies have is they have consultants that they pay to help leverage for different work products. One of the things that we do in Oakland though is that our bench, you know, sort of our retained counsel, if you will, is that we actually include our advocacy groups and our community groups in our bench so that we have them on tap whenever we need that support to make sure that they are, you know, that those community voices always have a place at the table. The other side of that though, so that’s a more institutional way. The other is that starting with hiring people who represent the community so that we are inside the community. Remember when I said at the beginning of this conversation, how many people grew up in Oakland? How many people live in Oakland? I think that’s so critical, so that when you start a conversation with, “What do you all think about this initiative,” there are people from across the city that are able to say, “Well I know folks who live on this block and they’re going to feel this way. I grew up around the corner. The response that you might receive is going to sound like negative criticism, but they really mean this.” That rich translation process is just so important. And I can give you just a quick kind of funny example that just happened an hour or two ago. So for our Slow Streets Initiative, we’re putting up signs that say “No Through Traffic.” So that’s in English, and I can already tell you that even in English people are asking me like, “What does that mean? What about delivery folks? What about, you know, pickup and drop off?” Yes, all of those are fine. Yes, they are allowed. Well we have a lot of Spanish-speaking residents and we have a lot of Chinese-speaking residents. So we asked our translation services to translate “No Through Traffic” into Spanish and Chinese. So funny enough, we asked them, they gave us back a translation, and we forwarded that to one of our leaders within a group called Walk Oakland Bike Oakland, she speaks Chinese as well. And she said, “Everybody, just letting you know that, you know, the way that you’ve translated “No Through Traffic” in Cantonese is actually directly translated as “No Car Traffic,” which is not actually what we’re intending, right? And she suggested, “Well what about ‘No Ins or Outs’ or what about, you know, ‘No Dropping Off’.” And so in that back-and-forth email and a few phone conversations, it was just so fun to sort of bat around this idea why it is so critical to have A) translation services and B) to have people who are, you know, sort of native to the community that can help us literally translate the intent of our policy to help them understand in one sign, in one phrase what it is that we’re trying to get across. And without that we would’ve actually conveyed a totally different message in a language, you know, in Chinese, that we didn’t intend to and just that example is just the root of the policy that we’re trying to enact, that we could have totally messed up on without having that person, without having Chris–her name is Chris–in the team.
JW (41m 34s): That’s awesome. I feel like sometimes we need those types of folks to, for just transportation jargon as well. I’m as guilty as anybody I think, but it would be helpful.
JW: For sure. What’s your least favorite jargon word?
WL (41m 49s): Oh, uh, travel demand management.
JW: Oh, TDM, yes.
WL: Cause it makes it sound like we don’t want people to travel, which is misleading, right? You know, reduction in trips. You know, when you tell people that you think, “What are you, what are you saying? You don’t want me to go visit my friends, you don’t want me to live my life?” (Laughs) And I think that that’s again, sort of similar to this shelter in place mandate. It’s similar to the “No Through Traffic.” You know, there’s a translation, right? What are you trying to say? If you live on the street, just drive slowly. If you don’t live on the street and you’re making an essential trip, please don’t drive through this neighborhood. That’s what we’re saying. And reducing that down into three words is really hard. (Laughs)
JW (42m 33s): Okay. So my last question is related to kind of subject matter expertise. You know you talked about getting consultants in and they’re on your bench and they’re helping you kind of figure things out. But how do we balance that kind of subject matter expertise with local knowledge and preferences? You know for the project process, for this future in which we are project-oriented, how do we balance the expertise and the data and the analysis of somebody who’s done it in maybe a number of different cities versus somebody who knows what’s going on on the ground in their place and they understand how people use the space and they’re worried about certain issues that come up because they’re there so often?
WL (43m 10s): That’s a great question, Jeff, and it’s, I will just sort of revise my earlier statement that the groups that we have in our bench, these advocacy groups are not just transportation advocacy groups. We have a couple that are community health groups, you know, in public health, we have some that are affordable housing groups. So we try and really diversify who it is we’re talking about and talking to and talking through when we’re using our advocacy bench. And again, that’s what’s sort of exciting is that, you know, I just got off a call a couple of hours ago with one of our public health groups that has a really great opinion about how we should be implementing transportation projects, right? So it’s A) again, sort of being thoughtful about who’s on our bench. The second, though, is when we do these community engagement processes where we ask people to sign up for emails, we don’t just delete their email later on. We try and keep up with them and keep calling them back so that it’s ideally a constant conversation. So that whenever I say, “Hey, you know, I just want to talk to you about this idea,” that they have a relationship with us and not just sort of a transactional one. I say this a lot, that it’s not transactional relationships we’re after. It’s transformational ones. Which is that transactional relationships are ones where I asked you a yes or no and then I say goodbye to you, right? “Hey, what do you think about this plan? Please tell me it’s good. Goodbye.” Versus a transformational one, which is, “I need your help building on this main principle of safety. Please help me transform both my mindset and others to understand how to help the community.” I will say we don’t have it down pat, right? Like we don’t have a perfect system, but I think starting with that intent in declaring it out loud to the community that we strongly believe that your voice matters and that, again, I said this before, building that trust over and over and over again is paramount. One of the things that often happens, you know, again, you had asked how people reach out to our office. We get a number of phone calls and emails. Again, people sort of expressing their concern and we repeatedly, we’ll tell our staff, you know, “I don’t care who’s right or wrong. You have to close the loop. You have to build that trust.” That is the most important aspect. And frankly being able to share when you’ve messed up and being able to share what your challenges are, what your mistakes were so that people can understand that we are also human. I think that’s also a critical component in that feedback loop.
JW: So Warren, where can folks find you online if they want to bother you? (Laughs)
WL: I recently discovered that I am Googleable so I guess you can just Google Warren Logan. The second is that you’re welcome to reach out to me on Twitter. My handle is @warrenmobility. The other opportunities that you can just email me [email protected]. Uh, I take courier pigeons and smoke signals as well. So it’s really up to you. I believe I’m accessible.
JW: I’m going to try a smoke signal and see if that actually works. (Laughs)
WL: I don’t know if I can see you from San Francisco and if I could, that’s probably a pretty big fire. Be careful, we are in a pandemic. (Laughs)
JW: Yeah. I made this mistake the other day. I was cutting parsley and I accidentally got to my finger and I was like, “Oh no. Oh no. I don’t want to go to the emergency room now. Be more careful.” So it’s a good thing it didn’t do too much damage. But yeah, don’t start fires. We don’t need those right now. (Laughs) Warren, it’s been great chatting with you. Thank you for joining us. We really appreciate it.
WL: Thanks so much, Jeff, for having me, it’s been fantastic.